A Whole New World…
Once in a while a game is created that does something very different. From Journey’s new take on exploration and connection through minimalism to Ubisoft’s personal tales of war in Valiant Hearts, Never Alone continues to push the medium of games by attempting to do something previously unseen; to combine the intricacies of a culture’s folklore and values with the accessibility and reliability of the interactive medium that is video games.
Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna in the native Iñupiat tongue) is the first in what will hopefully become an expanding genre of ‘world games’, titles that delve into a culture, while working with the people of that culture to develop experiences that accurately and respectfully represent and educate people about it. Coming from a background in educational games, E-Line Media now seems the perfect company to undertake such a task, hand in hand with the Cook Inlet Tribe Council.Based upon the native tale “Kunuuksaayuka”, the story follows a young girl, Nuna, and an arctic fox on a journey to discover the source of an endless blizzard that’s battering her home. The individual chapters of the game draw inspiration from wider stories of the Iñupiat people, bringing their culture to life in a distinct new way.
Never Alone weaves the values of the Iñupiat people through both the narrative and gameplay, exploring themes like that of interdependency, resiliency and generational sharing. One of the ideas that stuck out to me was that of interdependency; even working with a computer controlled counterpart, the puzzles require a cooperation between Nuna and the arctic fox. The relationship between the two is something depicted in cutscenes and animations, but most powerfully, I think, is how the mechanics of the game subtly echo this. I never found myself trying to do something with a single character, and never expected to. You fall into that comfort zone, through all the danger and puzzles, you’ll always have someone going through it, helping and struggling alongside. Truly, you’re never alone.Taking the form of a puzzle platformer, Never Alone will see you completing a vast number of puzzles and timed jumping sections across its chapters. There is a nice variation between both the style of each chapter and the problems you’ll face, relying on established knowledge and familiar tasks without becoming monotonous or repetitive. The addition of ‘Insights’, short two to three minute documentary pieces both near puzzles and hidden in the world really worked well to contextualise what you’re doing and experiencing with the folklore and culture. It all comes together as a journey of discovery and learning, far from a rehash of well trodden platformer cliches.
As each chapter brings new challenges, so too does it approach new environments and settings. Whether you’re trudging through snowstorms, jumping between ice floes or even swimming through a whale’s stomach, Never Alone is always stunning. The soundtrack drifts softly along behind the blizzard above and the simple visual style really enhances the feel of the game. Character models all look great even without a large degree of detail, and the use of scrimshaw carvings in cutscenes adds both interest and heritage to carry along its story through an interpretation of a very traditional art form.
These two struggle, adventure and bond silently, showing their cooperation and connection through subtle animation that builds their character.
Part of what brings this game to life is the animations and feel of the characters, Nuna and the arctic fox. These two struggle, adventure and bond silently, showing their cooperation and connection through subtle animation that builds their character. I often found myself making my way through the world slower and watching out for all the little idle animations that occurred while controlling the other character. The fine attention to detail and personality really shines through here.
Never Alone is not a long game, far from it, but I think the length is indicative of it’s purpose. You can play through the entirety of the narrative in around three hours, and it feels like it was made to play in one sitting. Reminiscent of sitting around a campfire and hearing a story told, you’re not participating in some grand arc that spans hours of lore and adventure, rather you’re hearing a folk tale with a purpose and message, designed to be thought on as a compact, digestible whole.However, once the story and insights are done there’s not a whole lot bringing people back. I can see Never Alone being a game a lot of people will play only once, experiencing the tale and culture for themselves then moving on. This is still a great thing, and different people will relate differently to the game, undoubtedly wanting to revisit the title in time. I myself want to go back to play it all over again in cooperative mode as I feel, from the small sections I played with family in coop, the game experience would be enhanced by that shared perspective.
Whether you’re sharing it with kids, family, friends or a partner, and I highly recommend you do share this experience, this game is bound to pull on your heartstrings and create memorable moments.The way the story, characters and gameplay all come together, as simple as they may be apart, is a testament to the medium of games. Combining these different facets has lead to something familiar and accessible but ultimately new and interesting, and I can’t wait to see where this genre of ‘world games’ will go in the future.
Never Alone is a truly beautiful game that will deliver a powerful cooperative or solo experience, and might even teach you a little something about the Iñupiat culture along the way.
Never Alone (PS4) was provided to Respawn Ninja staff for review by Surprise Attack.
Never Alone was voted our Indie Game of the Year for 2014 by the Respawn Ninja team! Congratulations to E-Line Media and Surprise Attack!